OMG I am gonna fail... except, oh hai, I am actually the valedictorian.
May 19, 2008 6:59 PM   Subscribe

Why does the person who sobs and complains loudly about how they think they "failed" every test and that they are doing/did "horribly" in school (but ends up being #1) bother me so?

So there's this person in my classes who literally cries in front of people while we are waiting to take an exam.... walks out of exams loudly complaining that they (keeping it gender anonymous) failed.... continually attests that they struggle so much with the material.... yet gleefully ends up being ranked #1 in our class.... WHY does this bother me so?

This person was a friend, now more an acquaintance, and we used to study together for our exams and coursework. I admittedly struggled with the nature of the work, and it was challenging... I did average. When I was friends with this person, I would confide in them how I felt like I was drowning and I didn't know how to properly get a handle on the material. They would then proceed to discuss that they were doing so "bad" in school and they weren't happy with their performance either, and that they "understood" what I was going through.

But yet, this person is valedictorian--in lieu of the behavior of crying before exams because they were "going to fail it no doubt about it" and telling me that they weren't doing well.

I don't know why but I feel annoyed/jealous/stupid. Were they genuinely not sure of their talent? Did they lie? Drama queen ? Setting low expectations secretly so when they rocked out by getting valedictorian we'd be all amazed? Why would you act like you were getting bad grades ? I mean, you don't need to go on and on about getting good grades, but if one is doing well there's a way you can handle yourself appropriately.

Grrr... I know this is dumb, and I should get over it, but I feel really irked inside. Maybe because I was caught by surprise and didn't expect them to be valedictorian--maybe it felt good to think that someone else was struggling with the material like me, when all along they were kicking its ass and taking names.

What is this person's psyche for acting this way?

P.S. This wasn't a case of we didn't get any of our grades until the end of the year/semester; we would get grades/feedback continually.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (41 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
For a friend, acting like everything went wrong is almost a good luck charm. Every time he complains, he gets a good mark.
posted by Memo at 7:03 PM on May 19, 2008

Are you really asking because you're interested in an answer, or are you just looking to vent?

Yeah - people like that are obnoxious. I think it's an ego thing.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:06 PM on May 19, 2008

Back when I was in premed classes, people used to do this ALL.THE.TIME. It was so annoying. For some of them it was, I think, genuine, in that they could relive some of the stress of difficult classes by commiserating with others/assuming they were worse than they actually were so that they would work harder. But for some, I'm certain it was a game.
posted by phunniemee at 7:21 PM on May 19, 2008

I went to a magnet high school for smart kids, and a highly-ranked college. Those kids are everywhere there. The "Oh, I did sooooo badly" act is, 99% of the time, just that, an act. By getting (or pretending to get) all freaked out over fractions of a point, when their peers are actually worried about failing or not, they are demonstrating to the world that they are so goddamn smart and driven that you, mere peons, could not hope to compete. It's a ploy for attention and jealousy. They know they're going to do well, and by drawing sympathetic attention immediately after the test they know they're going to draw even more attention when they kick the test's ass, and hope others will be jealous of their accomplishments.

It's also an insecurity think (though demanding that attention always is). If you moan and wail about how terrible a test went, but you end up doing well, then you are awesome. If you do badly, well, you knew you were going to do badly and demonstrated that to everyone around you beforehand. It's a failsafe, so that people will never think that you went into a test confident but got your ass handed to you.

It's sad, sad behavior. And I wouldn't hang out with that person any more. I would bet you anything it gave them a lot of pleasure to compare their performance with yours.
posted by schroedinger at 7:22 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's entirely possible that they are genuinely afraid and (at least momentarily, in the anxiety of facing the tests) deluded about their ability to succeed. High achievers are often being driven by severe external pressures (expectations from parents etc.) and their own self-esteem being attached to their performance. I have known more than a few people for whom this delusion of imminent failure (however detached from the reality of their past performance and obvious ability) was clearly one of the secrets of their success - it was a lash that drove their efforts.

As personality flaws go, it seems like a fairly trivial one. I'd say you're acting like a punk. Get over it, their performance has nothing to do with you.
posted by nanojath at 7:23 PM on May 19, 2008 [5 favorites]

It could be Imposter's Syndrome
posted by lunasol at 7:25 PM on May 19, 2008 [5 favorites]

Of course you feel weird about it, this person threw you off your game. Seeing someone else who seemed to be struggling made you feel less alone in not understanding the course material. But the person making valedictorian puts you back to being alone and feeling stupid. Moral: If you compare yourself against others, you will always fall short in the end- there will always be people better than you at everything you do. You must only compare yourself to yourself- did you do your best work? Did you work as hard as you could? Are you going to graduate? That's really all that matters. Nobody (ok, almost nobody) gives a damn about grades after school is over.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:33 PM on May 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

Anxiety, Imposter's Syndrome and all the years of people saying really snarky things to them. When people say nothing about the test and then get a good remark, many people still berate them, saying "You're so competitive", "You're not saying anything because you think you're better than us", "Must be nice to not even need to study...jerk", etc. So some people react to the stress of the situation by verbalizing their anxiety, making themselves seem a little more like the other people who fret over exams (and this person may in fact fret too) and seeming more like everyone else, so that they're not targeted.
posted by acoutu at 7:34 PM on May 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Also keep in mind that it's possible that this person does feel like they're drowning and didn't understand the material but managed to do well in the course anyway. Stranger things have been known to happen.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:35 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's sad, sad behavior. And I wouldn't hang out with that person any more. I would bet you anything it gave them a lot of pleasure to compare their performance with yours.

Well, just a data point, but I spent my college career making myself ill (literally) with stress because I was convinced I would fail or do very badly, despite always doing well and, ultimately, coming first in my year in the final exam. I did not do it to manipulate. For several periods lasting several months each, it made my life hell. If I could do it over again I would definitely trade a significant amount of the performance for less of the stress. It wasn't worth it. Please don't assume your classmate is a manipulative jerk.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:40 PM on May 19, 2008 [5 favorites]

I've been on both sides of this issue: that is I've been the person irritated with the friend who loudly complained about how badly he/she had done and then did great and I've been the person who felt she'd done horribly on an exam and wound up getting the highest grade or at least doing way better than I expected. And my advice is: cut the person some slack. It's not always possible to tell exactly how well you did in a class. Many people have high expectations for themselves. I know I do. There are times when I feel I've done horribly on an exam only to find that I've actually done pretty well. It's entirely possible that he/she genuinely felt that they did badly on the exam and were as surprised as you at their good grade. I remember walking out of an AGRE exam into my parents' waiting car convinced that I'd done horribly because I hadn't been able to even look at the last 5 questions -- but I got a great percentile in the end. Sometimes it really is impossible to have an accurate assessment of how you've done especially when grades are decided in comparison with everyone else who took the exam. On the other hand, I do feel your pain. I can think of one friend especially who did this almost every exam and got amazing marks almost all the time. But I try not to judge him too harshly since you really never know what's going on inside people's heads. Most people aren't doing it to make other people feel bad, honest.
posted by peacheater at 7:41 PM on May 19, 2008

After getting through law school, I basically determined that talking about grades is prisoner's dilemma-ish:

If you say a test is hard, and you ultimately do well, then you are an asshole.

If you say a test is hard, and you actually fail, then people may think you are dumb, but generally they will like you and find you to be refreshingly honest.

If you say a test is easy, and you ultimately do well, then you are a cocky asshole.

If you say a test is easy, and you ultimately fail, then you are a stupid cocky asshole.

So really, by simply complaining that the test is hard, you have the best shot of people not thinking you're an asshole; if you ever say that a test is easy, then people will basically hate you no matter what the outcome. As you can see, this is highly scientific reasoning.
posted by gatorae at 7:48 PM on May 19, 2008 [8 favorites]

...ooooooor you could just not talk about grades/tests at all.

I refuse to talk with classmates about tests because, frankly, tests piss me off. If all a person can talk about is how they think they will do/how they are doing in a class, then they're not someone I want to be friends with. This will help you avoid the annoying people.
posted by phunniemee at 7:51 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

1. what schroedinger said about how you're better off socially saying you'll suck rather than bragging.

2. drama queen tendencies, yes.

3. Valedictorians play on a different field than the rest of us. If they have so much as one tiny, tiny, fraction-of-a-point fuckup (or whatever, I ain't no valedictorian), it probably feels to them like they're about to flunk out of school because they weren't perfect just that one time. That's gotta be a perpetual mindfuck to deal with that sort of pressure.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:51 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Had a high-school classmate like that. Big show of being completely dimwitted. Completely wasn't. Lots of angst over grades and lots of playing loudly dumb.

Turned out her father was a repulsive, abusive son of a bitch who spent most all of his free time telling her and her sisters that no man would ever want a smart woman, that he was ashamed of them, that nothing they did was ever right, etc.

Sometimes people *are* just being jerks. Sometimes there's a lot of carefully-crafted family-related damage behind it.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 8:10 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I went all through undergrad and professional school absolutely convinced I was going to fail every exam and graduated at the top of my class both times. I'm no drama queen; I almost never shared my sickening feeling of impending doom with anyone else. I just suffer from garden-variety crippling insecurity. My belief that I was never anywhere near prepared enough caused me to study like an absolute maniac, which resulted in my high grades.
posted by HotToddy at 8:11 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm that person, almost. It's irritating to other people because it sounds like covert bragging and it wastes emotional bandwidth when you rush to sooth what you think is a crash and burn and find out that it's not just someone crying wolf, but someone doing extremely well.

We get hysterical this way because we care too much. Every A- or B on my transcript feels like an F. For some reason, if it's my marks it has to be at least an A to be okay, and as an honour student I'm ashamed that I only clocked in a 3.7 this term. The best way of dealing with me is to attack the root of the problem 'You have high anxiety, your marks are fine!' so I can stop crying about a muffed question. And jenfullmoon is right, this is an ongoing mind fuck, that if I don't fiercely self regulate it bleeds over into other spheres of my life, from anxiety over relationships, to job performance. I think if I fail a class I'll be doomed to living in a box under a bridge, so while I don't get test anxiety, waiting for my marks is like waiting to find out if you're HIV positive or not.

I think the stress thing is genetic. My father, mother and aunts are more high strung than a harpsichord on Mount Everest, and I seem to run at the same tense and jerky levels.

But you're also suffering from the grades caste system, where us egg heads are untouchable and unclean on account of not being average, I think.
posted by Phalene at 8:24 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

If someone is used to high achievement, it's very hard to tell sometimes whether the feeling of something going badly (like, blanking during an exam or knowing you've submitted flawed work) is putting them at 90% or 30%. Seriously. I've been convinced I've failed things, genuinely livid with myself for fucking up, and gotten an A in them. I've also thought I only fucked up slightly and actually done pretty badly, because I'm still not used to fucking up at all, which now gives a precedent for failure and makes me sure a slight wobble is a complete disaster.

Some people's stress is toxic and it's fine to avoid everyone before an exam or choose your study partners very carefully for that reason. Drama-mongering is really annoying and it's hard not to be driven up the wall by it, but genuinely never getting to take confidence in your ability and making yourself sick with anxiety is no fun at all and it's hard to stop even when it's visibly irritating to other people.
posted by carbide at 8:30 PM on May 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Some people succeed precisely because they put this sort of pressure on themselves. If you look at it that way, there's less of an apparent contradiction.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:33 PM on May 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

It bothers you because the behaviour is disingenuous, and that's understandable.

I'm going to make a guess that the person concerned, for reasons they may not be fully cognisant of themselves, is uncomfortable with appearing to be ambitious. From my observation, this is the way a lot of girls behave when they are both expected to acheive to a certain level, and are expected to make it look effortless - so I would bet a girl. Not that it matters, but it may help to understand the situation. Acheivement and aspirations of "femininity" are tough to reconcile...

but hey, I could be a long way off the mark with the gender thing.

The tears and drama suggest to me that this is a person under a lot of pressure, perhaps from family, or even self-imposed. I've seen a lot of this behviour, and it always makes me sad to see someone not feel free to just go for the things in life they want to acheive - adding all the extra work making a pretense of insecurity is really a big burden, and tiresome to behold.

Sometimes this behaviour is common in an environment where acheivement is not valued. I went to school with a straight up physics genius, and he had to keep his phenominal grades to himself because classmates thought being brilliant warranted unrelenting mockery. Insecure people will always see smart folk as an embarrassing threat and treat them accordingly - perhaps your freind has encountered a person or two like this before,a dn they'd really rather blend in with the whole "I'm gonna fail!" routine.

My impulse would be to say to the person next time this happens (and in the most friendly, easy-going way possible) "Hey, you know it's OK to want to do well - no need to pretend you don't. It helps me do better too."

and then I would run my own race, and forget about it.
posted by lottie at 8:39 PM on May 19, 2008

I went to a magnet high school for smart kids, and a highly-ranked college. Those kids are everywhere there. The "Oh, I did sooooo badly" act is, 99% of the time, just that, an act. By getting (or pretending to get) all freaked out over fractions of a point, when their peers are actually worried about failing or not, they are demonstrating to the world that they are so goddamn smart and driven that you, mere peons, could not hope to compete. It's a ploy for attention and jealousy. They know they're going to do well, and by drawing sympathetic attention immediately after the test they know they're going to draw even more attention when they kick the test's ass, and hope others will be jealous of their accomplishments.

* * *

It's sad, sad behavior. And I wouldn't hang out with that person any more. I would bet you anything it gave them a lot of pleasure to compare their performance with yours.

I am probably somewhat naive, but I think this is quite ungenerous and probably inaccurate. I'm sure some have the view that the gulf between their prediction and their result will make others more jealous and, simultaneously, establish their incontrovertible superiority . . . though it seems like it would be much more effective to simply feign a lack of concern, kill on the test, and calmly report that success when asked. I would guess that many more are insecure, uncertain, and trying to fit in. This is schroedinger's backup hypothesis, but I don't think it warrants cutting those people off.

The more sympathetic appraisals downthread are more in keeping with my experience. I can see why it's a rude surprise to have them do so well, and they are wrong if they consciously misled you. But as to whether they are manipulative beasts, I think it's at least as likely that you are being jealous of their success. Put it this way: would you still be friends with them if they'd said something to the effect of how the material was at all challenging and they reckoned they'd be valedictorian? If you want to stay on good terms with such a person, call BS the next time they do this, or pointedly contrast their behavior to someone who gets great grades but isn't annoying to you . . . but it's probably unfair to demand that someone strike exactly the right balance.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:46 PM on May 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

My girlfriend is like that. I don't compete with her at all (we're in entirely different degree programs), but before every one of her exams she always starts getting upset about how she's going to fail and doesn't understand anything, and usually ends up getting the highest grade. She doesn't do it intentionally; she genuinely does think that this time she really isn't going to make it.
posted by pravit at 9:11 PM on May 19, 2008

FWIW, my behavior as a high-school valedictorian was pretty much the opposite. In tenth grade, I overhead some acquaintances musing about who our valedictorian might be; I turned around and told them that, because of the grade-weighting system and my accelerated coursework, it would be me unless I received at least four Bs as final grades. (I'd made a spreadsheet.) There were some dropped jaws, and it was pretty much a conversation stopper. I was immediately horrified by what I'd said, but it was more or less a reflexive response as I had the answer to their question.

The summer before senior year, I decided to attend Excellent State U. When people asked where I was applying, I told them that I was "going to ESU", and if asked for clarification would explain that I was applying early decision and not worried about getting in. I caught some queasy expressions from others who were hoping to be accepted there or elsewhere, but the only surprised reactions were from those who'd expected me to apply to Ivies.

Anyway. Before these and similar incidents, there wasn't much of a social connection going on between me and my classmates. But believe me, being blunt about my academic achievement did NOT help the situation, and this could be the kind of thing your friend is trying to avoid. However, I have to say that I never felt that anyone disliked me or was angry -- the popular-and-pretty-smart kids were always very nice to me; we just didn't have much to say. Overall, no regrets, but then my personality type doesn't lend itself to fitting in. Everyone's different.
posted by ecsh at 9:37 PM on May 19, 2008

I've spent a lot of years in school with some extremely driven people (as well as plenty that weren't), and I think in most cases this sort of behavior is annoying but not meant to be. I have known people who will act dramatic for the sake of showing off later, but they're rare and it's always pretty obvious when that's the motivation. I think a lot of overachievers are under a lot of pressures that may seem trite to others, but are very real inside their heads. Imposter syndrome is a big one, but so is the pressure to keep being the best. Someone who's used to getting C's and D's might worry about actually failing a test, while someone who's never gotten anything below an A- in their life might be terrified of getting a B for the first time, and that concern can be just as genuine. By the standards they have set for themselves, a B would be a personal failure, and would probably inspire a "What happened?" from Mom.

It's quite easy to lose perspective when one spends all one's time focused on schoolwork. We forget that we're the sum of more than just our grades, and that our grades are not all dependent on one test. If you're prone to anxiety, you can start to imagine worst-case scenarios before every test, start to realize everything you don't know...

Be patient with your friend. It sounds like you're mostly stressed out by the impression that he or she is just doing that to show off or bother you, but I bet you that's not the case. If you actually want to stay friends with this person, maybe talk about how this bothers you, or just make a pact to stay off the topic ("Talking about the upcoming test stresses me out, let's not."). At my school, talking about grades was considered a bit uncouth, so maybe just avoiding that topic after the fact would help.
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:49 PM on May 19, 2008

When you are perfectionist wound thus tight, then you are judging your self worth on the grades you receive. In these cases, the student in question isn't concerned that they are doing badly on a test, but that they are themselves bad people or failing at life.
posted by boubelium at 9:55 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's an insecure person who is just trying to make her/him self feel better, for whatever reason. It's all about insecurity. I went to school with people this also. You don't need to get over it, just don't pay them any attention.
posted by wv kay in ga at 10:05 PM on May 19, 2008

One of those people here.

At the time of high school, I was chronically ill, suicidally depressed, and had extreme anxiety during exams. Exams I usually cried during and after, shook so hard I could barely see, and basically was highly nonfunctional. I had a nervous breakdown towards the end of the last year out of sheer stress.

I graduated, not quite at the top of my class, but I was definitely an overachiever.

I'm sure some of my friends were annoyed that I made such a production out of it; but I genuinely thought, each and every time, that this time, I would fail.

As an adult, I'm undergoing treatment for PTSD due to events in my very early childhood, and the related effects of both on my life and my health.
posted by ysabet at 10:16 PM on May 19, 2008

The prisoner's dilemma above is a great explanation. The other thing is that anything less than X% may be a fail in that person's mind. Some people may see that as perfectionism. However, for the person who is concerned about "failing", that mark may actually be the same as a fail. It may be enough to cost them a scholarship, knock them out of the running for graduate/professional school, cost them some funding for grad school, etc. Sometimes, the people you think are trying to be perfect are simply trying to get into a competitive program or even just pay for school. The pressure to keep up a certain GPA can be immense.

But, if they said, "I am worried sick that I just got a B+ on this exam and that I'm going to lose the $5k a year I get for tuition, plus I won't get into a good PhD/medical/law/MBA program, I'll have limited TAships, I may not get a recommendation from this prof, and I'm going to have to study non-stop to make up for it with a 99th percentile score on the GRE/MCAT/LSAT/GMAT and I'm going to have to pick up a part-time job, which will cut my time even more", you'd hate them. So they may say that they're concerned they failed because, in fact, their score might be low enough to be a fail for what they are trying to achieve.
posted by acoutu at 11:02 PM on May 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

Also keep in mind that it's possible that this person does feel like they're drowning and didn't understand the material but managed to do well in the course anyway. Stranger things have been known to happen.

This happened to me twice. The first time was a film class where the lecturer announced from the very beginning that he was a strict marker. It was utterly difficult, made many of us cry, and I failed one of the major assessments. I was completely convinced I failed.

I ended up getting a B, which I found surprising (I didn't expect to do so well especially after one failed assignment) - but what surprised me more was when my friend, who took the same subject a semester after, told me about how the lecturer went on his "strict marking" spiel again and said that "only one student last sem got a B".

The other time I had to do a pre-req subject for Arts Management in my first sem of uni in Australia, which actually turned out to be a master's level subject (why they made a Master's subject a pre-req for a BACHELOR's I do not know). It was about Australian theatre history and I had no knowledge of theatre history or Australian history. There weren't any tutorials; just one-hour super dense lectures a week.

There were about 2 other students in the same boat as me (international, first-year, Arts Management, no theatre experience, had to do this subject) and we were all stressing about it. The class only had 2 major assessments - a 4000-word essay and a final exam. The essay was the main source of my depression for the whole semester, it was that bad. And that exam was possibly the only thing I've ever studied for that hard (I normally grasp concepts easy).

I was expecting failure and would have been happy with a 4 - a Pass. I was shocked when I found that I got a 6 - Distinction. And my essay, the same essay that led me to yell and cry at my mum when (out of bad timing) she called me just as I was starting to write it and got stuck), thoroughly impressed the lecturer.

I also have a scholarship which had rather vague requirements of "keeping up your grades", and I also relapsed into deep depression due to other factors. It was very stressful to not be able to "just get by", which would have abated my depression a great deal, because I have a scholarship to maintain. I did very badly last semester, but I'm still on the scholarship - though it does mean I can't mess up.

Your friend likely has other pressures too. Maybe they come from a culture where anything less than an A is shameful (huzzah Asian education systems). Maybe being valedictorian is expected of them. Maybe they feel bad that they are doing better than their peers almost by accident because of reactions like yours and are trying so hard to be normal. I did very well in school without trying and many of my classmates resented me for it. Your friend is likely trying to find a balance.

All the people thinking it's "covert bragging" hasn't seen the mental processes and stresses such students go through.
posted by divabat at 11:42 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it's simple, unreasonable anxiety. I was a pretty good student in high school, and there were plenty (though not all) tests that I was SURE I was going to fail. I don't know why, I did pretty good on them, but the dread was so great that I was a basket case. I can't say that I made a big deal about it before or after the test, but I truly felt that way inside.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:43 AM on May 20, 2008

i'm dealing with classmate like this right now. Complains about everything and comes out on top of everything. its really, really annoying. like you, it really bugs me too. To the point where I distanced myself from her once I saw the pattern, it annoyed me too much.

At first we would commisserate about how hard things were, or I thought we were sincerely commisserating. Turns out I was sincere and for her it was some kind of habit where she just disses herself even though she knows perfectly well that she's going to do fine and be fine. At that point I felt like I had been deceived by imagining we had both been sincere in our complaints.

Part of the problem was that we had been complaining for totally different reasons. She was complaining because she really believed in getting high grades and wanted to be approved of by 'the system'. I complained because I believed in expressing myself and mostly found 'the system' got in my way. So actually were were moving in exactly opposite directions and merely passed by each other for a few moments. The sense of commonality - just because we were both complaining about 'the system' at school - was ultimately thus an illusion. We complained for totally opposite reasons. And in the end thats why I felt betrayed by her -- and annoyed.
posted by jak68 at 1:27 AM on May 20, 2008

Perhaps there are extremely high expectations that are not being met, but the overall level of performance is still ridiculously high?

After Test: OMG, I better have gotten a 100%.
After Receiving a Grade: OMGWTF?!? A 98%?!?? I'm a failure. :(

A friend of mine had always received straight A's until the masters program. He then got his first B and freaked out about it. Even though a B is still good, he had never received a B before in his life and was conditioned to think the B was unacceptable.
posted by toaster at 3:20 AM on May 20, 2008

This used to be me. I hated every paper I turned in and walked out of every exam sure I'd barely passed. I genuinely did think I would do/had done badly, and I was always genuinely surprised when I did well (or at least, much better than I thought). Eventually I started accepting that I wasn't always going to do badly. I still prepared myself for the worst though, as insurance just in case it happened - that way I could be pleasantly surprised with a decent grade even if it wasn't the best grade. Now I just try not to think about it.

I'm sure there are people who are disingenuous about this for all the reasons above, but there are also people who are completely sincere. It is a type of insecurity and/or self-protection. Is it really worse than the arrogance that comes with thinking you're really awesome and invulnerable?
posted by walla at 5:55 AM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you grew up thinking that an A was the only acceptable grade (and managing pretty well up through middle or even high school), and here come along threats of a B, or maybe, even, terrifyingly, a C, it can be pretty stressful. Perhaps you've never gotten chewed out by your parents for getting a C, but others certainly have. When you're up towards the top, just a little bit can make a difference, and getting that little bit can be a struggle. If being valedictorian is your only hope of being able to afford college, certainly getting 2nd place can be a failure.

Never mind that these people may tend to receive very little praise and positive reinforcement. None of their peers say "Good job being first!" because they all would rather be first themselves. Their parents don't say anything because doing well is the expectation not the exception, and who gives praise for business as usual? The C-level kid who gets a B gets congratulations. The A-level kid getting an A gets nothing. All they have is fear of getting anything but that A.

What's handling yourself appropriately at the top, anyway? You can't discuss things you did have problems with, because people think you're exaggerating because you're at the top so things mustn't be too hard. Some kids (especially at younger ages) will pester you to tell what you got on tests and such, and then berate you for doing so well, so you learn that saying anything about your grades is bad. Some people at the top manage to be awesome and helpful and well-liked and popular. It seems that most don't.

So they get stressed out and they have nobody to really share that stress with and then they get sobby and worn out and with no help or sympathy to hope for. Sounds fun, no?
posted by that girl at 6:24 AM on May 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

Be patient with your friend.

Seconded. And please ignore the people here who are "supporting" you by making comment about how yeah, those guys are irritating assholes. Listen to the people who have been "that person" and are explaining, very well, why it happens. Different people have different ways of reacting to tests (and life); the fact that someone does it differently than you does not make them an asshole, and you shouldn't put your own psychological issues onto your friend. As a matter of fact, if you can get past your issues, make yourself believe your friend can't help it and could use an understanding friend, and go on from there, they might become an even better friend.

Side issue: I don't understand why anonymous posters make a point of disguising the gender of someone they're writing about. You're anonymous and your situation is utterly generic; it's OK to say "he" or "she."
posted by languagehat at 6:30 AM on May 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

People who end up on the top of their class tend to be the people who have a crippling fear of failure and unreasonably high expectations for themselves. The underlying cause could be any number of things, but more often than not meeting their parents can be an "ah-ha" moment in these cases. Either way, it makes sense--at the almost top, you have the kids who are smart and hardworking. At the very top, you have the kids who are smart, hard-working, sometimes unsure of themselves, and think that failing to measure up academically would be the absolute worst thing that could happen. Thus they worry too much and overprepare, which in the end is the very thing that gives them the edge over the other good students.
posted by lampoil at 6:43 AM on May 20, 2008

This seems like a variety of countersignaling, which is certainly prevalent among high-achievers in school, in my experience. For more on this fascinating phenomenon, see the articles here and here (pdf). Essentially, countersignaling theory explains why high-quality people/players/students may choose to mask the qualities that make them most competitive. This "oh my god I totally failed" can be a part of such a strategy.
posted by chinston at 7:18 AM on May 20, 2008

My sister struggled in primary and secondary schools -- flunking every math class the first time around -- and my family held low expectations for her. In college, she made respectable, if unimpressive, grades and got her Bachelor's.

Fifteen or so years down the line, she finally figured out what she wanted to be when she grew up, and went back to school for a BSN. The formerly mediocre, unmotivated student was now motivated and competing with younger students, most of whom she assumed to be smarter than herself, and she fretted like crazy over every assignment, every test, sure *this* was the one she'd flunk and lose everything. She ended up salutorian and probably had classmates saying similar things about her, but I can assure you her anxiety was very real and not remotely about social standing or fear of looking "too" smart.

Different people have diffeent threshholds for anxiety, pain, fear, satisfaction, etc. That doesn't make their threshholds any less valid than yours or any easier to deal with.
posted by notashroom at 9:13 AM on May 20, 2008

The person isn't really a drama king/queen. they are a person who has both perfectionism and anxiety. They deal with that anxiety by shoving it off on everyone else, loudly. It isn't a good coping mechanism, but it works for them.

Why are you angry? Because you feel they are looking down on you. they aren't.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:40 AM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

OK, I haven't been able to read everyone's responses carefully, but here's mine anyway...

Being annoyed is understandable.

Reasons why you are annoyed:

1. Jealousy. But you owned that, so cool
2. Friend is too public about stress. By being dramatic, emotional and PUBLIC about stress, your friend/acquaintance forces other people to listen, to be sympathetic, to, in some other way, make their stress the centre of things. Everyone has varying levels of stress, but making it public and forcing others to deal with it when they have their own stresses to deal with, is sort of being a drama queen and also kind of selfish. And manipulative. Coping with your stress by getting everyone around you to share in it sucks.
3. Friend needs some goddamned perspective. If all that work has paid off, then Friend should be thankful. Funny, I was just talking about this the other day. A long time ago, when I was crying and whining about some test score of mine, which was pretty good, and I wanted sympathy from my good mate, he took a deep breath, then dished out some tough love. "Mooza" he said, "I think it's kind of self absorbed and selfish to be complaining about your score, when you got what you deserved. Plenty of people in your class worked just as hard, if not harder, and didn't do as well." I felt like a complete dick.
4. Friend has lack of empathy. Someone wrote above that your perception of how well you do is relative, that for a straight A student, a B might be tragic and I agree. But geez, all the Asian high achievers I knew sucked it up and never cried about it, except to really close friends or other Asian high achievers who knew what their parents would do if they brought home a B. Sorry. My point is, if Friend always comes first, then Friend must think less than first is failure. So if Friend thinks a B is bad, and you are doing average, then logic follows that they must think doing average is dreadful. Maybe you find that insulting. I would, even if they don't mean it like that. It's just a lack of awareness.

I think schroedinger has a point. It might not be a conscious thing, but at some unconscious level they are being manipulative. Again, they probably don't mean it. It's a bad way of dealing with stress, but that's what happens to some people. And it's still annoying.
posted by mooza at 6:50 AM on May 21, 2008

Along the lines of countersignaling and public sharing of stress....if the person went through an honours program or something like that, this behaviour might have been part of the group bonding experience and just par for the course.
posted by acoutu at 7:54 AM on May 21, 2008

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